The Vita’s Uncanny Valley

Sections: Exclusives, Features, Handhelds, Opinions, Originals, Vita

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There is a convention in computer animation known as “The Uncanny Valley,” which basically states that when a replica of a human looks almost, but not quite perfectly, like an actual human being, we as human observers are repulsed by it. The PS Vita seems to have fallen into an Uncanny Valley of its own. Or, maybe Sony threw it down in there.

Time and time again I hear the cries of “The Vita has no games!” I don’t think this is at all true. The Vita has some fantastic games. Just look at Gravity Rush, Sound Shapes, LittleBigPlanet, or Ragnarok Odyssey. The Vita has games. You can make an argument for the pricing or the marketing being a factor, but I personally don’t think the game library is the problem. The problem is our perception of these games, and the system itself. The one thing I keep hearing in game reviews, or other gamers’ comments is that “It’s not quite as good as a console game, why wouldn’t I just buy the console port instead?” Of course it isn’t. But you can’t play your PS3 on the bus either.

You don’t hear that with the 3DS, because people’s expectations are tempered. You expect, at best, GameCube quality. With the Vita, it seems everyone expects PS3 quality; this is partly Sony’s fault for hyping it up as being a portable PS3. This is partly the gaming media’s fault for jumping onto that hype train. Mostly it’s the Vita’s own fault. You power it up and you see Nathan Drake looking 90% of Nathan Drake as you remember him from the console installments of Uncharted. You hit this Uncanny Valley of sorts in the graphics, where it’s “so close” that it’s almost distracting thinking about it. While you’re marveling that a handheld can provide those stunning mountain vistas, you just can’t help but wish it had that last 10%.

uncharted golden abyss vita

The same thing happens with the controls. Dual analog sticks suddenly make gaming on the Vita feel more like a console than a typical handheld. You know with the 3DS’ slide pad, you are going to get somewhat gimped controls that the developers will hopefully, and usually do, find a great way to work around. You get what you expect. On the Vita, you expect a console-like control experience, which serves nothing but make you realize the rear touchpad can’t replace R2 and L2. The analog sticks are better than anything ever seen in a handheld, but feel terrible next to a Dual Shock. Again: so close.

We always sit and compare the Vita to its console counterpart because it is so close, but can’t quite match it. We should be impressed by this, but we aren’t, Instead we’re turned off by it. Clu, Jeff Bridge’s CGI clone in Tron: Legacy is probably the most egregious offender of the Uncanny Valley in cinematic history,

It’s a feat of CGI animation that should have blown us away. It’s incredibly impressive from a technological standpoint, but to viewers it was just awkward and made you wish they just slathered some make-up on The Dude instead.

The PS Vita is the portable gaming equivalent of Clu; on paper it is incredibly impressive. In practice, it just has the effect of making you wish it had that little bit more. Or maybe you wish you just had a 3DS instead. Not because the Vita isn’t good enough, but because it almost manages to be too good for its own good. I love my Vita. I bought it at launch and still use it almost daily, it has the games and the technology, but sometimes I just find myself wishing it had that little bit more.

So, what can Sony do about it? I really don’t know. Maybe the Vita really can match the PS3 and developers just need the time and dedication to help the system reach its full potential. Maybe it’s the opposite. Instead of trying to go toe-to-toe with consoles, Sony should go the Nintendo route and almost ignore the machine’s power. Focus on unique game mechanics instead. LittleBigPlanet Vita almost pulled off both at once. Almost. Tearaway makes me hopeful. Sony has been doing an amazing job of supporting indie developers, maybe they hold the key to success that the big studios haven’t found.

vita littlebigplanet

In the end maybe it’s up to us. As gamers, we need to just step back and realize it is a handheld. It’s never going to be the PS3. The Vita does, however, accomplish things the 3DS could never even hope to achieve. Maybe we should be happy with that? I know I am. Yet, I also know I’m constantly repulsed by how close it is to something more.

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  • Geoff

    I’ve had a Vita since day one and last week finally got a PS3 to take advantage of all the free PS+ games. So, coming at this ass-hat backwards, the PS3 interface is really cludgy (it felt OK on the PSP), installing digital games is a joke and PS3 setup “features” is a nightmare.

    Give me my Vita any day, playing MotorStorm RC is no different, there’s not a huge step down from Uncharted. And, so far, only iNFAMOUS 2 is has made me go wow”

    Aside from the big-name shooters (which I’ve played for years on my Xbox) and RPGs like Fallout 3, if I had to choose one out of Vita or PS3, I’d go Vita for convenience. If the Vita could play a Skyrim or a CoD game properly (and there’s no evidence (apart from some shoddy coding so far to suggest it cant), no one need bother with a big-screen console again.

  • Dave

    It’s unfortunate that many Vita games run at a lower resolution than the Vita’s native 960×544 (Assassin’s Creed, Gravity Rush, Uncharted). This makes the graphics look muddy, and not on the same scale as PS3. If you look at the games that actually take advantage of Vita’s high resolution (Wipeout, Sly Cooper), they look great, and pretty close to PS3. Developers need to step up and use the Vita to its full potential if they want to impress us. Also, reviewers should knock points off a game’s score if it runs at a lower resolution.

    • jerimiah

      Thing is Sly Cooper also doesn’t use the same cell shading as the PS3 version, and if you look at them next to each other the Vita port has a lot less ground clutter and details in the environments. Look at the character models in Mortal Kombat vs the PS3 port. The polygon counts are a lot lower. I think there are some clear limitations in the Vita that different devs work around in different ways. Either lower resolution, or reduced polygons, etc. I agree there is some laziness going on *coughCallOfDutycough* but for the most part I sincerely believe its harder to make the Vita match the PS3 than Sony would have us believe. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I don’t think it can just be blames on lazy developers either.